The Horse Whisperer Who Also Calms People
03 Feb 2021
Therapy programs rescue trauma victims and wild horses
By RAY LINVILLE » Photos by Mollie Tobias
As Winston Churchill once remarked, “There’s something special about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of man.” That thought has led Justin Dunn on an amazing life journey.
From his early childhood when he first learned the special relationships that horses and people can share with each other to now as the owner of the American Mustang School in Aberdeen where he guides both horses and people in supportive ways that mutually improve their lives, Dunn has been much more than simply a horse lover.
His equine-assisted learning programs are well respected for the help that they provide to someone suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and related injuries. The programs are provided free of charge to first responders, veterans, and active duty military who have been in high-stress environments and experienced traumatic events.
Dunn explains that someone with severe anxiety or uncontrollable thoughts about a traumatic event can gain peace by having a healthy work-play relationship with one of his horses. Having a positive relationship with a horse can open gateways to healthy relationships with people and can help improve communication and other life skills, he says.
The comments that Dunn has received from those who have participated in his programs are heart-wrenching. “The mustang horse helped me to enjoy my life. I don't want to kill myself anymore,” one participant told him. Another said, “My thoughts are in my control now, and I choose to live and become better.”
Dunn’s grandparents instilled in him a deep appreciation for how connected people and horses can and should be.
“Both sets of grandparents had horses,” he says. “My parents divorced when I was five years old, and horses were where I went for support and connection as I grew up.
“My truest friend, my horse, passed away at 29 when I was 14. My first experiences were with that horse,” he adds.
While he was attending high school in Texas, Dunn continued to develop his appreciation for the support that horses can provide people when he was active in Future Farmers of America.
“Our club would partner with a high school with handicapped students, and we conducted programs that helped up to 10 kids at a time ride horses. Using horses to help others really captured my attention then,” he says.
As he reflects back on his teenage experiences, many special memories stand out. “Students on a horse would remark, ‘I have legs.’ By steering the horses around, they experienced equality and were mobile. From the expressions of those kids, I learned that this is something that I would have to do,” Dunn says.
Dunn’s dreams with horses were deferred briefly. After a stint in the Navy, he started a company in south Texas that restored properties damaged by fire and water. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita had devastated the region, his business was booming, but his hunger for using his connection with horses to help others led him to move and buy a ranch in Colorado.
There, at an elevation of 8,600 feet, he started a trail-riding business. In addition to guiding more than 5,000 riders on trail adventures and pack trips, his horses brought joy at a camp for children with cancer that gave Dunn as much satisfaction as his high school experiences.
Although horses have always been central in his life, horse training became a new challenge and a way to connect with nature. The first few horses that he got were free, but they came with a different price: He had to train them, a task that wasn’t easy. His favorite to train is a mustang that has never been handled by a person.
Mustangs, the descendants of horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the early 1500s, are free-roaming horses in the western U.S. states. To protect and manage them, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can sustain about 26,000 mustangs in its herd management areas. However, to reduce the overpopulation, almost twice that number have been rounded up and are kept in holding areas.
Although these mustangs can be adopted, adoptions are too few, and they are kept in inadequate conditions. “It’s like a concentration camp. They are separated from their families, get only basic food and water, and have no space,” Dunn says.
Early in developing his training philosophy, he adopted an unwavering adherence to never resort to fear or pain and force submission of a wild horse. Each mustang that he has taught has reciprocated and taught Dunn something about himself. “This highly intelligent animal can be a teacher in so many ways,” he says.
As he gained fame in the region for how well he could train even the most stubborn horse, calls began coming in from ranchers who sought the services of the “horse whisperer” who believes in the humane treatment of equines. “It took years to develop my communication skills with horses to reveal their beautiful gifts,” he says.
For more than a decade, Dunn has helped to rescue and rehabilitate American mustangs, and now he is helping others rehabilitate these amazing creatures. When Dunn moved to the Sandhills in 2018, he put into motion more long-term plans — some definite, others evolving — to advance his love and connection with mustangs to a new professional level.
Dunn opened the American Mustang School where he teaches people how to train wild horses. As he preserves the American mustang, he is also promoting mental health and wellness by offering therapeutic services.
Dunn is able to provide these programs at no charge to participants because a few local non-profits provide scholarships and he receives some limited contributions from area residents. He would like to do more, but the operating expenses are high. “My hay bill alone is $1,000 a month,” Dunn says.
In particular, the Duskin and Stephens Foundation, a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supports the Special Forces community and is managed by active duty members of the military, is very helpful. It accepts donations for Dunn’s school (American Mustang School should be designated on checks mailed to the foundation), which then applies the contributions to scholarships.
One of Dunn’s favorite quotations about mustangs is by J. Frank Dobie, an American folklorist who wrote about the richness of the open range and the value that a horse provides to humanity: “No one who conceives him only as a potential servant to man can apprehend the mustang. The true conceiver must be a lover of freedom — a person who yearns to extend freedom to all life.”
Those sentiments continue to inspire Dunn as he observes how his horses help change the lives of everyone who participates in his programs. americanmustangschool.com
Contributions for American Mustang School should be made payable to Duskin and Stephens Foundation and mailed to:
Duskin and Stephens Foundation
26 Pinecrest Plaza #316
Southern Pines, NC 28387
Designate AMS on the check.